You’re at home after work when your college friend calls you--her boyfriend just broke up with her. She didn’t see it coming. Everything was going fine, when out of nowhere, a letter showed up on her doormat; he’s had a change of heart and doesn’t think they should continue. She sobs; her voice shakes; you tell her you’re on your way.
Three weeks later, you’re at home after work and your phone rings. You’ve spent every day since the breakup on the phone with your friend, hearing her out, consoling her, even crying with her at times. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. Whereas once you responded to her distress with patience and sensitivity, her sadness has worn on you--you’re tired of it, you want her to get over it. While she still mourns the loss of her relationship, there are other things you’d rather spend your time doing, like hitting up the Barcade down the street, whose happy hour ends in thirty minutes. “Time heals all wounds,” you say reassuringly as you eye the clock, “time heals.”
One of the earliest lessons a writer learns in workshop or elsewhere is to avoid cliche. Cliche is the low-hanging fruit of literary language; overused, overly broad--it’s abused principally by young writers looking for sonically taut phrases that appear to have the authority that comes with experience. These are the reasons why we turn to cliche in everyday conversation--they make us seem quick witted, they make us seem sonically savvy, even wise, but ultimately, they betray our flippancies, our uncaring, and our unoriginality.
Lera Auerbach’s latest collection of poems, Excess of Being (Arch Street Press, 2015), meditates on a variety of subjects: music, muses, misgivings, writing, readership, and art, to name a few. But despite its designations, the collection is truly a meditation on literary form, specifically, the aphorism. Of all of the literary forms (if you can call it literary) the aphorism encompasses the impulses that potentially support or threaten a poem’s strengths. Like the best poetry, aphorisms are compressed, and rhythmically arranged; like the worst poetry, they generalize; they lack nuance, which is why you can use a phrase like “time heals” to comfort a friend going through a break up, or someone who has just stubbed their toe. So from the collection’s inception, Auerbach writes herself into a box with few methods of escape. How can a poet meet the demands of both an aphorism and a poem without diluting the poem’s intensity or narrowing the broadness of its appeal? Is it possible to reach a middle ground? And if so, is that middle ground the kind of place a reader even wants to be?
The collection opens with a question: “What can be better than an aphorism?” The speaker’s answer: “Its absence,” Not a reassuring start to a book that obsesses over aphorism. As one might say about a friend’s unimpressive boyfriend, it’s difficult to say what she sees in it, especially for a writer who so clearly enjoys language. Excess of Being catalogs dozens upon dozens of sentence-long reflections on art, love, loss, all of the heavy subjects one expects from a melancholic artist, and while Auerbach’s choice in form is mystifying, it is readily apparent that she sees limitless opportunity for play. Take this sampling here:
There are only
two types of composers:
and decomposing composers (35).
Possession of a bird
possession of a song (41).
The only thing
is too much
The Devil loves quoting prophets (423).
In this smattering of aphorisms from throughout the collection, we see a speaker in love with paradox; she explores ways in which to subvert meaning, feeling, and expectation. Auerbach continually introduces ideas before quickly manipulating them against themselves the way a martial artist might throw their opponent, or an action hero who disarms his enemy with the flick of the wrist, only to use their weapon against them. And though Auerbach at times employs varying syntactical structures in her explorations, Excess of Being reads heavy with paradoxical constructions like those excerpted above, and they reveal less about their purported subjects than we should hope. As previously mentioned, by committing so wholly to aphorism as engine, for a collection spanning nearly 500 pages, even as we near its end, it feels as though the speaker has only scratched the surface. This is not due to Auerbach’s lack of imagination or depth, but rather because poetry relies on the motors of repetition and variation--too much of either can render even the best ideas inert. Written as single sentences, single lines, or couplets, Auerbach piles aphorisms high, often using the same syntactical judo-move, and even though the speaker’s attention modulates from one subject to another, after a while, the music registers as stagnant, unmoving. Shortly into the collection, we are able to anticipate where a statement might end--with yin listening to yang, the reflection speaking truth to its subject.
Excess of Being, however, is not without its pleasure. In what is the most thrilling moment in the collection, Auerbach confronts aphorism as a form, invoking its name, then indulging in it; she simultaneously defines and challenges its qualities:
When words are few, each finds its place. It's easy to get lost in a crowd
Aphorisms are samples of what this book could have been.
Aphorism: an afterthought of a preconception
An aphorism is the epitaph to a thought
Aphorisms: spam of a writer with a short attention span.
Aphorisms: punch lines, aimed not at the reader, but at the author.
Note: My best thought just evaporated.
Aphorism: an appetizer without a meal to follow.
Aphorism: a prelude to a canceled sermon (63-66).
With this litany of definitions, Auerbach modulates from clinical language at the start, with highly Latinate words like “samples,” “preconception,” and “epitaph,” to more colloquial diction with words like “spam” and “punch line.” Though the list repeats itself, these sonic pivots move the poem in unexpected ways, illustrating the dynamic qualities of the speaker's relationship with aphorism, as well as its multiplicity--an aphorism can be an aspiration, a deterrent, a call to action--all of these, all at once. It brings to mind Section II from Ginsberg’s Howl, in which the speaker confronts the cannibalistic forces that have devoured the minds of his peers, personified as the god Moloch:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Mol ch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
In Ginsberg’s poem, the speaker also invokes obsession by name. He enumerates the ways in which it consumes, the ways in which it steals, the ways in which it shapes the world it lives in with each qualifying phrase widening the depth of destruction. Auerbach’s litany similarly deepens our understanding of her relationship to aphorism, but Excess of Being comes off as more meditative, more contained, less frantic. It's hard to evoke mania with such short lines, even with dramatic shifts in diction, though it's clear that within this speaker burns a passion for expression and artistic connection. Aphorism, often used to tamp down or contain unruly or unexpected situations, seems antithetical to artistic exploration. And maybe that's central to Auerbach’s argument, that art requires room for elaboration and searching, but to fully prove that point, Auerbach needs to more dramatically subvert the form with greater specificity in her diction, as well as take more adventurous risks with her syntax.
One poem that achieves this, amongst other things, is John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” The speaker questions a droll teaching of his mother that “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources,” and subsequently sends the language off the rails as his investigation deepens:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Though Berryman borrows aphoristic language that verges on cliche, the poem does not live in that register long enough to rob it of its momentum. Boredom, declaration, mania--Berryman layers a few motifs throughout the poem but despite all of its refrains, the poem’s syntax and diction vary enough to keep the poem moving in unexpected ways. The language contorts itself into formations so far from conventional expression that by the poem’s end, it feels as if we’ve left the stratosphere. Now that Auerbach has thought long and hard about aphorism, it will be interesting to see where that new knowledge leads her. After long periods of obsession, we sometimes feel repelled at the prospect of confronting it again--whether it’s a piano sonata we played over and over again, or what was once our favorite food. How long before Auerbach returns to aphorism, if ever? How might she approach the next poem she writes? Perhaps it will have long lines with sentences that lead us deep into the margins of the page, and beyond.